I often see the question “if you’re not a Christian, what do you do at Christmas?” I say “see” because I only ever read it; noone I know or have ever spoken to in person has ever asked me. This is probably because I live in Australia, where FOX News’s imaginary “War on Christmas” hasn’t spread from the US (or, indeed, from within the minds of a few possibly unhinged TV presenters – looking at you, Glenn Beck – or a few fundamentalist churches). Apparently, when a popular chain store instructs its employees to issue a secular holiday greeting like “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, it’s evidence that the great militant atheo-scientist cabal is at work to de-Christ Christmas – not that said stores are just trying anything they can to increase their revenue during the spendingest season in the spendingest country in the world. Additionally, when a school decides not to have Nativity play it’s not because the school is a state school and is required to remain religiously neutral, nor is it because the staff have realised that not everyone at the school is a Christian. It’s because the secularist Obama-worshipping war-haters would rather teach the kids how to be a gay than teach them about the birth of he who would become humanity’s scapegoat.
The other reason I’ve never been asked what a heathen does at Christmas could be because, again, I live in Australia, where people don’t tend to talk about religion very much. Most Australians tend to see their faith, or lack of faith, as noone’s business but their own (at least in the circles I grew up, which happened to Venn-diagram pretty closely with some very religious circles). There are, of course, exceptions to that: we’re not free in this country of the two main brands of door-to-door soul-winner; nor are we free of the nigh-Orwellian spectacle of Catholic bishops or cardinals being asked by reporters for soundbites regarding how we, the great sinful unwashed, should all be living our lives (or telling the parents of clerical rape victims to stop pooping on their big Pope-party).
So, what’s the answer? What exactly does an atheist do at Christmas? Seems like a pretty stupid question to some, admittedly, but to others it’s genuine: what do you do at Christmas if you don’t subscribe to the reason for the season? Well, there’s a multi-part answer.
First, a list of things atheists do at Christmas:
- travel to see relatives or friends in far-off places – or do the hosting
- eat way too much
- drink way too much
- decorate a tree
- go to office parties, get drunk and have a big whinge about all the bullshit they put up with that year
- spend way too much
- pretend to be excited when they unwrap something ghastly
- wonder what the hell to buy their Nanas
- swear on their graves they’ll stay home next year because the travel is exhausting
- wonder why the hell people still wear the Santa suit still has fur on it – it’s 38 Celsius for fark’s sake
- eat plum pudding with brandy sauce despite the 38 Celsius thing
- enjoy being with their loved ones
- sing carols
Presumably, the above list is more or less what all the Christians I know do at Christmas.
Second, a list of things atheists don’t do at Christmas:
- go to church (in fact, I hardly know any Christians who do church at Christmas – usually there’s way too much going on to have time!)
We do the same as anyone. We appreciate the time off and we fulfil our obligations and we spend all our money and eat until we’re asleep. Some of us even donate our time or money to help the needy, as any “good Christian” should.
Actually, to be accurate, some of us do end up going to church at Christmas – atheists don’t live in some weird secular vacuum, y’know. Some of us accompany our relatives to services and of course, apart from Christmas, there are inevitable weddings and funerals. Some of us even like churches – they’re very peaceful, soothing places, perfect for quiet contemplation and some are breathtakingly beautiful, wtih some of the world’s most stunning buildings being devoted to gods. Usually, it’s just the content of what’s said inside that we disagree with – or, in some cases, the official attitudes of the owners of the building toward, say, women or gay people or justice for children or reproductive rights, make going into one seem like a soft betrayal of our principles.
The final part to the answer: we do often contemplate the reason for the season. Obviously, the “Christ” part of “Christmas” gives it away to an extent. But Christ isn’t the entire reason – he may be the namesake, but late December didn’t become Jesus’ nominal birthday until centuries after his death. Humans have been overdoing it in December since we noticed the seasons cycling. The date itself comes from northern-hemisphere Pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice – the impending return of the sun & the end of month upon month of soul-crushing darkness and cold. A time of year when you can start thinking about Spring and the renewal it brings. Ancient societies were big on celebrating the change of seasons. It’s easy to forget in Australia that northern hemisphere winters are long, icy and generally unpleasant whilst ours are comparitively mild and short (though sometimes we have to put a coat on – and we did invent Ugg boots). To an ancient farmer, the start of the end of winter would be something worth celebrating each and every time it happened. And what better way than to spend all day with your family inside in front of a roaring fire, drinking, singing merry songs and making a good solid dent in your winter food reserves?
With no dates or even seasons specified in the four Gospels, early Christian Rome more or less had carte blanche to set the day to celebrate the birth of the saviour, so they attached the Nativity story to what Romans (and subjects of the Roman Empire in Europe) were doing over Winter Solstice, which was already the biggest celebration of the year. Roman Pagans had a festival called Saturnalia, which was basically a week of drinking and eating and fooling about. Pagans all over Europe already marked Solstice in one way or another – usually with jubilation and booze. So, while establishing Christianity as the cult of state, the Romans decided to appropriate parts of existing festivals (not just dates either – medieval times saw the adoption of Norse Yule celebrations including the burning of the Yule log and the bringing inside and decorating of a tree). Prudently, the Romans didn’t tell everyone to stop drinking and having fun and eating themselves into a coma; being Romans, telling people to stop partying wouldn’t have gone down very well. They had a rep to protect!
What an atheist does for Christmas really isn’t that different than what a Christian does. We all congregate to spread good cheer. We all spend too much money and eat too much rich food and we all complain about having to barbecue enough prawns to feed a small army and bitch about the price of cherries. Pagan, atheist, Christian alike, we Euro-descended humans do the same things we’ve been doing in late December since before Jesus was even born (whatever the date was). I can understand precisely why a lot of Christians have the idea that they invented feasting in December and I can understand some Christians’ bafflement at atheists singing carols, but the fact is, despite Rome fixing Jesus to Saturnalia (much the same way you’d nail something to a piece of wood … but that’s another post) Christians didn’t invent having parties in December. Really, I have no objection to marking December 25 as the birth of your god, just don’t make out like it’s your day and ONLY your day. Other people have the right to drink too much egg-nog and pass out under a fricking cherry-pine, even if they don’t believe Jesus was who the books say he was.
All the same, I wish every Christian and every heathen in the world a Happy Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice & Saturnalia …
Bah, I must admit – “Merry Christmas” really does roll of the tongue rather nicely, doesn’t it?
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